Parenting, and particularly motherhood, has long been the subject of coercive gaze and bureaucratic discipline by masculinised political classes. Just see Australian Prime minister (and Minister for Women’s Affairs) Abbott’s recent ‘women of calibre’ remarks in regards to paid parental leave!
In this article, Liz Shield outlines ways in which ‘deviant’ mothers engage in resistance to the State, and proposes the act of parenting as activism itself. Many activist communities display significant blind spots around the issues and barriers to inclusion faced by parents and children. In addressing this we can start by recognising their agency in creating and contributing to radical social change.
This article was originally presented as a panel talk at the Anarchist Bookfair in Melbourne 2013. The topic was “Building Inclusive Communities”. I started out thinking I would talk about how activist or anarchist spaces, including campaigns, meetings and direct action, do or don’t support parents/carers and families; but when I started writing I realised that I wanted to talk about how important parenting/caring is and how it is a form of activism in itself. The ideas I am presenting are not all mine, I acknowledge Adrienne Rich, Jackie Huggins, China Martens, Audre Lourde and Ruby Langford Ginibi for my inspiration.
“I increasingly realised how and why motherhood is political – because there are barriers to not only contraception and abortion, but also prenatal care and adequate, affordable childcare. Motherhood is political because kids are taken away from their mom (sic) because she sleeps with other women. Motherhood is political because public policy is more concerned with punishing poor women for reproductive choices than making sure their kids have healthcare or enough to eat. Motherhood is political because although motherhood is seen as the natural, biological destiny for women, society tells certain women they should not become mothers” Christie Barcelos, from her zine “in the (m)other tongue” #1
I acknowledge the complexity of terminology and I will be using the term “parent” primarily, but include carers of children in that category, and will use the term “mother” or “woman” acknowledging that children are parented in the overwhelming majority of times by their mother or another female caregiver, but for brevity cannot always say “or father, grandparent etc”.
As anarchists, I feel it is important to recognise the role of the State in conceiving, birthing and raising children. Women who deviate from a State-sanctioned, socially desirable construction of motherhood and family are targeted, coerced, scutinised and punished. Certain women not fitting a socially desirable white, heterosexual, middle class and normative model, are discouraged and prevented from becoming mothers. Statutory authorities use surveillance and assessment tools particular to the dominant culture to maintain a parenting status quo. This practice has had devastating consequences for First Nations people in colonised countries such as Australia.
Racist policies over the last 200 years have seen the invading society justify removing and institutionalising as well as illegally adopting out Aboriginal children. Aboriginal families have been torn apart, often deliberately, as well as being ensnared into indentured labour for white families. Despite parenting white women’s children as nannies, housekeepers or wet-nurses, Aboriginal women’s ability to parent their own children has been called into question by the State often due to ways of parenting particular to her culture that is not of the dominant white model. The fear of white authorities coming to take children is a persistent one in Aboriginal communities as the practice has continued in different forms until the present day. Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely to be taken into foster care than non-Aboriginal. Former Family Court judge Tim Carmody states that, “removing a child at any age from a loved environment – even if it is inadequate or even risky – can give long term problems to that child; “the impact on some children will be the same as the stolen generation.” To be Aboriginal and a mother in a colonised country is to be continually engaged in resistance.
Women with disabilities have traditionally been denied the opportunity to bear and raise children. As a group, they are generally regarded as “asexual, dependent and in need of care rather than caregivers, and generally incapable of looking after children”. Suppression of the right to reproductive freedom takes many forms for women with disabilities including “coerced abortions, pressure to undergo tubal ligations and hysterectomies, forced sterilisation, lack of appropriate reproductive health care and sexual health checks, restricted contraceptive choices and the denial of rights to be a parent based solely on their disability”. For women with differing abilities, being a parent is to be continually engaged in resistance.
For women who have been homeless, there are a number of barriers and State powers governing if and how one can parent. If homeless women secure accommodation that doesn’t have separate rooms for different sex children, this is defined by the State as “inappropriate accommodation” and she has to find an alternative or risks having her children removed, despite having put a roof over their head. You cannot have children with you in rooming (boarding) houses, so a woman housed in one must leave if she becomes pregnant or wants to have her children stay with her. Considering the Public Housing wait list is about 10 years in most capital cities in Australia, many women have a long wait to be issued a home for themselves and their children. These children may have been removed because they were homeless, without this being regarded as a State failure to provide safe, affordable accommodation for poor people, or increase pensions and payments to above the poverty line so families can afford appropriate accommodation to meet their needs. To be homeless and a parent is to be continually engaged in resistance.
If sex is your work, you are at risk of not being seen as a fit parent. Being engaged in sex work, regardless of whether your children know about it, or you do not work from home, is grounds for child removal as they are considered “at risk”. This is despite the fact many women work long hours or with toxic chemicals that also mean their children are in the care of strangers or exposed to irritants and carcinogens, but these are not considered as risky because of the stigma of sex work and the model of State-approved employment for “good mothers”. To be a sex worker and a parent is to be continually engaged in resistance.
Women who are criminalised risk losing their children and prevented from being parents. Once women are imprisoned, their families are broken up and children must be cared for my relatives or risk being removed by the State. The separation of mother and child can be hard on everyone and affect their long term relationship. Women are also strip-searched in prison after family visits, which can compound their trauma and affect the experience of family visitation. Criminalisation of women can become permanent with a record that will affect future travel, employment and housing opportunities, the experience of institutionalisation as well as an ongoing struggle to regain and retain custody of her children. To be a criminalised woman and a parent is to be continually engaged in resistance.
From conception and then throughout a child’s life, the State wishes to coerce and control those who parent and how. To access reproductive technology through Melbourne IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) one has to undertake a police check and Department of Human services check under the Assisted Reproduction Treatment Act (the ART Act 2008) . Prior to the introduction of this Act, “a woman who did not have a male partner had to be deemed clinically infertile to be eligible for treatment. In comparison, a woman with a male partner who could not conceive a child – regardless of whether or not she was clinically infertile” – was able to access IVF. As a result, many women denied access to treatment in Victoria travelled interstate to access IVF treatment facilities, at inconvenience and expense. This carried an obvious stigma towards single and same-sex attracted women wanting to become parents.
Once pregnant, there are many decisions to be made, including regarding genetic testing, which can lead to complications if you do not wish to go with the mainstream medical model and advice. I declined the Down’s Syndrome and Spina bifida tests even though medical personnel kept encouraging me to have them “because of my age”. I didn’t see the point, as I wouldn’t abort a perfectly healthy foetus because he or she had a statistically higher chance of being a human with a more varied experience. A woman I met told me her scan result was in the highest percentile but she continued the pregnancy and her child doesn’t have any genetic variations.
Then there is the birth itself, the location of which presents many challenges from legal and logistical points of view. Home midwives have been jailed and risk legal action for assisting women in the way they have done so for hundreds of years in the most basic act of control of one’s body and fertility – childbirth. Once the baby is born, there are a bunch of vaccinations, tests and medicines the medical authorities want to do straight away, and for the mother, an injection to get the placenta to birth faster. These are not always medically necessary, often for hospital convenience or “efficiency”. It took a lot of reading and a supportive birth advocate for me to stand up to this and stick by my choices to decline some of these interventions.
While there is no handbook on parenting, and certainly no “one-size fits all” model, I believe an imperative part of parenting is being able to make choices and listen to your intuition regarding the care and nurturing of this new, precious and vulnerable human being. There are a myriad of choices and decisions to be made about where your child will sleep (cot or co-sleep?) how it will be fed (breast or bottle) soothed (attachment method or controlled crying?) clothed (cloth or disposable nappies?), educated (home-school or public/ private?) Whatever your decisions they will become fodder for conversations with child health nurses, doctors and other health practitioners as well as other mums and dads and people at the bus stop. I am stopped by women who want to know why my baby isn’t in a pusher (coz she is in a sling). I have had strangers shout “where’s her doona?” as I am wrapping my daughter in a blanket on a cold day. As a feminist, I dress my daughter in all colours of the rainbow including blue (and not baby pink) prompting confused questions from shoppers and op-shop staff. It demonstrates how much our society has invested in a binary gender system and clear markers for gender, which are maintained by individuals and the State. These coercive judgements disempower women and discourage listening to our nurturing instincts. To be an informed, free-ranging parent is to be continually engaged in resistance.
A medical and cultural monolith exists, supported by the State and multinational corporations, which attempt to enforce culturally normative, risk averse sleeping, bathing, feeding, clothing and parenting styles on all parents. Or else. When I admitted in my new mum’s group that I co-slept with my baby, after a dramatic warning of the potential ways I could harm or kill her by doing this from the nurse facilitating the group, another mum whispered to me, “I wanted to sleep with my baby but I was too scared”. I said ‘talk to me later” and loaned her a copy of “Co-sleeping Safely with Your Baby” by Dr James McKenna who runs a sleep clinic for mothers and babies in the USA. To abide by your parenting instincts is nothing less than an ongoing campaign for self-determination.
My next challenge, as a queer, feminist social change activist, was to try and find ways to maintain involvement in communities that are largely youthful and childless. Although brimming with passion, creativity and knowledge, folks in these circles are not always welcoming to dribbling blobs of op-shop threads. I am aware that many activists/ anarchists don’t regard parenting too highly, regarding it as a conservatising or wasteful pastime.
To parent in a feminist, non-authoritarian way in keeping with my values, means to try and instil values of co-operation not competition in my child. I want her to be motivated by mutualism instead of greed. I want her to think collectively instead of individually. I am aware this makes me engaged in a form of civil disobedience. And yet, in the so-called radical communities in which I have campaigned, learned and loved for more than 2 decades, I feel like myself and my child are only being tolerated at best, and unwelcome at worst. That people look at me and think I am a “breeder” and wonder why anyone should have kids at all because the world is already overpopulated /about to end or my first world baby will consume too many resources.
I think people who judge parenting like this don’t know me. They don’t know about the 5 years it took me to save enough for my IVF treatment as a lesbian woman, including selling my car. They don’t know how I always wanted to be a mum, and how much this baby means to me. They don’t know how I want her to grow up to be a strong, confident, critically-thinking, fair and compassionate, awesome human being. They don’t know how I use cloth nappies and buy most of her clothes and toys and books second hand from markets and thrift shops. They don’t know I use reusable nursing pads and make my own re-usable baby wipes, or that I breastfeed which is better for my baby and I believe, the environment and doesn’t succumb to the multinational pressure to use formula. They don’t know I take my baby to Anarchist book fairs and prison abolition forums, and refugee rights rallies because these things are important to me and I want them to be important to her.
I know what kind of communities I want her to belong to, but I want to feel that these communities want us to belong to them.
Are you an activist parent or interested ally? What stories would you like to share? How can we work together to address the oppression of parents and children, and make our communities inclusive? Stay tuned for a follow up article of practical tips.
Liz Shield is a queer, feminist social change activist and mother-of-one. When she is not working with homeless people in Melbourne, she is creating and distributing a zine, “Tick my Box” and volunteering with Flat Out, a community based not-for-profit supporting women exiting prison. She is involved in campaigns for abolition of prisons and detention centres, for Aboriginal sovereignty and against the nuclear industry. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, gardening and deciphering baby talk. She has recently learned how to make pom-poms.